Monday, July 25, 2016

Power is nothing without control: lessons from the failed coup in Turkey

In the recent coup in Turkey, we saw the armed forces splitting into two factions fighting each other. It is part of the general problem of controlling complex systems, especially social ones, where we can quickly discover that power is nothing without control. Here are some considerations of mine based on the similar plea that the ancient Romans faced. (image: an F16 flying over Ankara during the coup, from "the aviationist")

About two thousand years ago, the Romans had developed the most effective military apparatus seen before in history and, with it, they had created a vast empire. However, with the first century before our era, they found that they had a problem: their stupendous military power was going out of control. One of the warlords of that time, Julius Caesar, had staged a successful military coup in 49 BCE. Even before that, the Roman legions had started fighting each other, led by one or another warlord: Marius against Sulla, Caesar against Pompey, Octavianus against Anthony, and more. And when the warlords were not fighting each other, they were engaging their forces in reckless military adventures that were putting the Roman state at risk. For instance, in 53 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus led the army in a disastrous expedition against the Parthian empire  from which not even he came back alive. In short, the Romans were discovering that power is nothing without control.

The solution to the problem came from a man of exceptional military and political skills: Gaius Julius Octavianus. And it was a straightforward solution: the system had become unstable because it was too complex, it had to be drastically simplified by having only one warlord in command. So, Octavianus took the title of "emperor," that so far had meant just "commander," and added to it the title of "Augustus" (venerable) and that of "Caesar" to link it with the prestige of his predecessor. Most importantly, he started to link the imperial rule to religion. In time, the Roman Emperors were turned into semi-divine rulers, the porphyrogenites ("born in the purple"), people on whom the Roman Gods (and later on, the Christian God) had bestowed absolute power over their subjects. Rebellion against an emperor was not just a crime against the state, but a crime against God Himself.

Did it work? On the whole, yes. After Octavianus, the Roman Empire was turned into a remarkably resilient structure that was to last about half a millennium in the Western part of the empire, that was eventually doomed only by the collapse of its gold-based financial system. And Octavianus' idea of taking the title of "Caesar" was so successful that the Russian Emperors still called themselves "Czars," about two thousand years later. Not that Octavianus' idea stopped the rebellions completely and, in times of grave crisis, more than an individual at the same time would claim the title of Emperor of Rome. But, on the average, the Roman experience shows that a semi-divine (or even fully divine) ruler is a good way to keep the state together. As another example, we can think of Japan, where the military dictator of the country, the Shogun, though no divine ruler himself, ruled in the name of the divine emperor, the Tenno.

Now, move forward to our times and consider the recent events in Turkey, where we saw the Turkish army splitting in two and the local warlords fighting each other. Turkey is not an empire but it is (or perhaps was) part of the large empire that we call today "globalization." So, the struggle in Turkey was probably just a reflection of a deeper struggle within the empire, even though we'll probably never know the details of what exactly led to the coup. Outside Turkey, we are not yet seeing independent warlords fighting each other, but we are seeing that the Global Empire is engaging its military forces in reckless adventures that put the whole system at risk. The case of Iraq is just an example, to say nothing of the risk of a confrontation against a nuclear-armed state. For sure, the Global Empire has the most powerful military force ever developed in history, but all this power is nothing without control.

We seem to be facing the same problems that the Romans faced two thousand years ago: how to maintain control over a complex system that turns out to be unstable and prone to fighting against itself? The Romans solved the problem by drastically simplifying the system. Possibly, something similar can take place in the modern Global Empire, with the emperor in Washington becoming a divine ruler, taking up all the related trappings: crown, scepter, purple clothes, and the like. More than that, a divine ruler cannot be elected by the people: his power can only be the result of the divine will. We aren't yet seeing the Washington emperor claiming to be a divine being, but we may note how Mr. Erdogan played the religion card to gain the upper hand in the struggle in Turkey. Clearly, we are moving toward something new in the way the global empire is ruled, it is a slow and uncertain motion, but the general direction is clear. (*)

If there are similarities of our world with the ancient Roman one, we must also be careful to consider the differences. The complex system that we call "globalization" is much vaster than the Roman empire and it faces additional challenges. The Romans didn't have to face resource depletion, nor climate change, at least not in the same degree as we do, today. The Roman maritime transportation system kept working and supported the economic structure of the empire up to the very last decades of the existence of the Western Roman Empire. In the case of the Global Empire, the gigantic maritime transportation system that we call "containerization" is vulnerable to financial crisis, to a fuel supply crisis, and to sea level rise. A long-lasting interruption of the vital supply of goods carried by this system would rapidly kill the empire, no matter what the Global Emperor could order his armies to do. Then, a nervous warlord with nuclear weapons could bring the empire to an even faster end.

Overall, what we are seeing is all part of the behavior of complex systems, something that we still don't understand completely. We know that these systems are thermodynamical dissipative structures that evolve and change in order to maximize the dissipation rate. This is a phenomenon that goes on along an irregular path, sometimes taking the shape of the "Seneca Cliff", an abrupt and uncontrollable decline that often marks the end of those stupendous structures that we call "empires." Will we ever be able to overcome these cycles of boom and bust? So far, we haven't. At present, we are in full overshoot and it will be impossible to avoid some kind of collapse in the near future. We can only try to soften the blow, but the ongoing debate shows that the global elites really have no idea of what they are facing.

(*) Mr. Trump is clearly not the kind of person who can position himself as a semi-divine emperor. However, is probable incompetence as president may very well lead to a military coup of the same kind that led Julius Caesar to become emperor in Roman Times

On the loss of control that led to the demise of the Western Roman Empire, see also this post of mine:


  1. Ugo
    I am not sure that we understand fully the demise of the Western Roman Empire and the loss of knowledge which disappeared along with the organisational context and in large measure their populations. Rome's fall took with it not only most of its technology but also much of the legacy from the classical Hellenic world of the previous 1000 years. You will know better than I what survived in the Eastern Empire, I am no scholar, but it took a while for surviving fragments to come back together again. I think we can say we look back to a civilisation collapse not just an empire collapse.

    Empires can have shorter lives than a civilisation as we have seen in Europe in the recent century. The first global expansion from Europe became dominated for a short while by the attempt by the British Empire to impose hegemonic Free Trade and Sterling as reserve currency with the help of strategically held territories and resources and world-wide naval reach and bases for military control. This modern hegemonic 'unity' could not survive challenge.

    Since the Second World War we have seen a much more credible but similarly structured hegemony, using additionally a quasi legal concept of unity under the United Nations. A more frank declaration of US hegemony has been envisaged by the American Century people and has gained ground within US Policy. There seems to be a clear attempt at world simplification. With a quasi religion of Progress and a dogma of Democracy, we see an attempt at simplified structure including a single knowledge base systemised into single ‘modern’ models for Science & Education & Health and Justice. We now also have model structures for Nation Building (see OECD and WB etc world criteria for measuring and rating countries achievements and failures). The possession of nuclear weapons has meant that a direct military challenge on the current hegemon appears unrealistic. What could go wrong?

    My view is that indirect challenges short of nuclear war might remove the current single hegemon but this event is unlikely to result in the ‘Seneca’ fall of Industrial Civilisation in total, even if resources cannot maintain current global trading patterns. It might be interesting to speculate on what might survive the bottleneck, leaving behind in a century or so necessarily heterogeneous agrarian societies (based mainly on local conditions) augmented by surviving industrial technologies and retaining at least some of the civilisation’s knowledge base?


  2. Hello,

    Here is another example of order through religion.

    It is about : Before Islam: When Saudi Arabia Was a Jewish Kingdom

    Maybe it is not only religion that can keep a governments on track, but that the concept of progress and democracy also could do it, communism also brought some stability.

    Best regards,


  3. Amen, dude. Power means absolutely nthn when compared to the magnificent POW!er of the Trinity; compared to the wee, finite existence we got... and then death comes to U.S. all. Beyond stupid how those NWO freeks think they're at the top... when all they'll get is the very lowest realm when croakin' time occurs. Exactly why Jesus sed, 'Many try, few are chosen'. Let's win Seventh-Heaven, dude.

    God blessa youse.

  4. Ugo's writing is prophetic, Quote from above: Mr. Trump is clearly not the kind of person who can position himself as a semi-divine emperor. However, his probable incompetence as president may very well lead to a military coup of the same kind that led Julius Caesar to become emperor in Roman Times........

    In 2011, I wrote the following, (you'll have to take my word for it):

    --------“Now look ahead to 2016 or 2020. We’ve already seen whack-job candidates up for election as president, luckily they were laughed out of court. In 4 or 8 years time when the economy has really collapsed, some real godnuts will surface and voters will be ready to grasp at any form of insanity if it promises restoration of ‘the American Dream”.-------

    At the time Noam Chomsky was saying much the same thing, we were not plagiarising each other!

    I expected a godfreak to be in line for the Presidency, Trump just wasn’t on my radar. I’d guessed that someone like Cruz would show up though---it was inevitable.
    Trump is promising "more" and a return of the American Dream, To make the country great again, if only his way is followed. Like Hitler in 1933. .
    Essentially it is a promise of an infinity of plenty, done his way. A promise of a cornucopia of “more”.
    Hitler was using exactly the same words in 1933--he too was voted into office by a gullible electorate.

    But the US constitution cannot allow a fascist dictatorship to arise. Too many checks and balances, yet the scenario is all to easy to set in motion because those who wrote the constitution made no contingency plans for economic collapse, which the fallacy of ‘infinite growth’ makes certain. How could they? To the founding fathers, the American continent had no limits. Politicians today still hold that opinion.
    So how might this happen?

    Ten easy stages:
    1. A president (2020) is elected on the promise of eternal greatness. (Trump or Clinton having failed to deliver.) Only this time the POTUS will be competent and evangelical
    2. Those promises remain unfulfilled.
    3. The economy continues into its tailspin. (for all the reasons outlined above)
    4. The disillusioned majority faces acute privation.
    5. The nation begins to violently disintegrate into disparate regions.
    6. A state of emergency is declared.
    7. The military sides with the existing government (they have no choice)
    8. Civil war breaks out (2023?) as US regions demand autonomy.
    9. Martial law is declared
    10. You have a fascist (or more likely theo-fascist) dictatorship, as the "strongman" takes sole control of the nation.

    Welcome to the Disunited States of America

    And you thought our prime danger lay in climate change.

    1. Let's at least be thankful that Cruz is not the candidate. At least for this round.....

  5. Hello Ugo

    I think you may have drawn an analogy between the wrong periods in history. I see the Augustan Age not in our future but in fact centuries in our past. Our Augustus was William of Orange, King of England and Stathouder of the Netherlands, his Actium was the battle of Blenheim in 1704 which led to the establishment of the British Empire and the supplanting of the "hellenistic" powers of France and Spain.

    It seems people have forgotten about the might of "Rule Britannia! Rule the waves!" when the Seven Sea were as British as the Medditeranean was Roman, when the diplomats of His Majesty walked like roman proconsuls and to be a subject of His Britannic Majesty was the equivalent of calling oneself a Roman Citizen?

    To continue this Empire has its Antonine Age under Queen Victoria and its Crisis and wars of the Tetrachs in the early 20th century, with the imposition of American dominance which is the equivalent of the Illyrians emperors of the 4th century. America's pastiche of an Empire was built upon British imperial institutions which they never really understood and didn't maintain properly.

    This leads us to today's Age of Stilicon and Saint Augustine, were an American Ravenna intriges against a Muscovite Constantinople with the intent of universal dominion with the submission of the East to the West. It did not work out the first time and I doubt it will work any better the second with the neocons being the equivalent of the deluded courtiers at Honorius' court. I wonder if Hillary or the Donald have a chicken named America?

    After this plays out then we will be in the Age of Galla Placidia about which you wrote so brilliantly. You having retired from the University of Florence and become Friar Ugo will ponder on all these events and you will write how power and wealth became the idols of the City of Man and how this turned out to be illusions leaving once again place to the only eternity, that of the City of God.

    We shall all in due time reach our potential... just like chemicals...

    1. Why don't you make it into a post? I would be happy to publish it!

    2. That is an idea, I'll have to expand it and add details of course.

      I've come to feel that all the loose talk about empire that float around is just ridiculous since establishing an empire requires tremendous cultural and economic resources. At the time of William of Orange there where plenty of both, today were scraping the bottom of the barrel and the BAU system is now so fragile and unstable that any push could trigger a Soviet style collapse. You just have to look at the condition of the banking system in your country among other things. In Canada things are no better...

      In fact very much like the Western Empire under Honorius, mighty on the outside, a ruin inside and both governed by by stupendously asinine leadership.

      BTW -- What did you think of the career change I gave you? The City of God will need updating, all the shocks that are coming will be as intense as anything during Saint Augustine's lifetime.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)